Posted by: James Wapotich | November 16, 2014

Trail Quest: Skunk Point

Santa Rosa Island is the second largest of the Channel Islands after Santa Cruz Island, and is one of the four northern islands off our coast. Like the other Channel Islands, Santa Rosa is home to a number of rare and unique plants and animals.

The island offers a variety of hiking opportunities. In fact, it’s not possible to see all of the island in a single visit. Fortunately, Santa Rosa offers some of the nicest camping accommodations of any of the islands in the park, making it an attractive place visit more than once. And although Water Canyon Campground is about 1.5 miles from the landing pier and does require one to carry their gear, the campground includes potable drinking water, picnic tables, modern restrooms, and even a solar shower. However, during the drought the shower is closed. Each of the campsites includes a two-sided wooden windbreak, as Santa Rosa can sometimes be windy.

One of the more popular hikes on the island is a visit to the Torrey pines. This hike can be extended by continuing past the pines towards Skunk Point, which can include a visit the wreck of the Jane L. Stanford.

Torrey Pines Skunk Point hiking backpacking Santa Rosa Island Channel Island National Park

Skunk Point is seen from the ridge above the Torrey Pine Grove

The hike to the Torrey Pines from Water Canyon Campground is about 4.5 miles roundtrip. And the longer hike to Skunk Point is about 9 miles roundtrip.

One of the easier ways to reach Santa Rosa Island is through Island Packers out of Ventura, Island Packers offers regular boat trips to all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park.

The boat ride to Santa Rosa Island is about three hours and typically passes along the south side of Santa Cruz Island on the way out, and the north side on the way back providing some great scenery along the way. In fact, as the boat approaches Bechers Bay and the landing pier on Santa Rosa, one can see on their left both Skunk Point and the Torrey pines, offering a unique opportunity to preview the hike route.

Santa Rosa, unlike the other islands in the park, can also be reached by air. Channel Islands Aviation,, offers regular flights to Santa Rosa Island from Camarillo. In fact, the landing strip along coast is near Water Canyon Campground.

Water Canyon Beach Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park Camping

Water Canyon

From the pier, it is about 1.25 miles along Coastal Road to the turnoff to Water Canyon Campground. The route passes the historic ranch buildings, and landing strip before arriving at a four-way intersection. To the right, the trail continues up to Water Canyon Campground, and to the left, provides access down to Water Canyon Beach.

It is from this intersection that one also begins the hike toward Skunk Point. Continuing east, Coastal Road descends down into Water Canyon, and true to its name, the creek does have water in it. Here one can also find a trail along the creek down to Water Canyon Beach.

Coastal Road then climbs back out of the canyon and arrives at the intersection with Wreck Road on the right, which continues over to the south shore.

Continue along Coastal Road, which follows the marine terrace that stretches from the pier towards Skunk Point. The wave-cut terrace was formed when then sea level was higher than it is today; however, the sea level was not necessarily as high as the terrace is now, as the land has also risen over time.

Torrey Pines hike trail Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Forest

Santa Cruz Island frames a view of Torrey Pines

At about the 1-mile mark, just past the turnoff to Black Rock, Coastal Road arrives at the beginning of Torrey Pines Trail. This mile-long trail makes a loop up through the pines and rejoins Coastal Road a half mile further east, and makes for an easy addition to the hike to Skunk Point.

From Coastal Road, Torrey Pine Trail climbs the ridge line between two side canyons as it transitions its way into the pines. Along the way, look for a small grove of Santa Cruz Ironwood on your right. Both the ironwood and Torrey pines are relict plants from a time when southern California was cooler and more humid. Ironwood trees at one time were found along the coast as far north as Washington, but now only occur naturally on some of the Channel Islands, favoring the cooler north-facing slopes.

Similarly, the Torrey Pines, at one time, also had a wider range along the coast. Today they are considered the rarest pine in the United States, with only two native populations remaining, one on Santa Rosa and the other at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, near San Diego.

However, another theory regarding the presence of the pines on Santa Rosa that has been offered is that the Chumash planted the pines there as food source for the pine nuts. And it is interesting to consider which of the plants and animals on the island may have been brought by the Chumash and which ones arrived on their own. For example, it’s been suggested that the island fox descended from gray foxes that the Chumash brought with them from the mainland. Another theory holds that the gray foxes were carried out on driftwood during the last ice age. At that time, the sea level was lower and the four islands off our coast were part of a larger, single island called Santarosae, and the distance to the mainland was only five to six miles.

Regardless of how the foxes and pines got there, their presence are one of the highlights of a visit to Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa Island Fox Channel Islands National Park

A watchful Santa Rosa Island fox

As the trail threads its way through the pines, it offers views out towards Santa Cruz Island, before descending down a series of switchbacks to rejoin Coastal Road.

About a quarter mile further along Coastal Road, the road passes Torrey Pines Road, on the right, before arriving at the turnoff for Skunk Point, on the left.

From the turnoff, the trail continues east along the bluff before descending down to the beach. Near the far end of the beach, one can find what’s referred to as Jane’s Knees. These knees, or braces, are part of the wreck of the Jane L. Stanford and served to tie the ship’s deck to the side of its hull. They appear now almost like a line of small, weathered tree trunks in the sand amidst the other driftwood.

Jane's Knees Skunk Point Santa Rosa Island Channel island National Park Jane L. Stanford

Jane’s Knees

The Jane L. Stanford was a wooden four-masted barkentine vessel that was launched in 1892. The vessel carried lumber across the Pacific, and later served as a fishing barge. In 1929, it was struck by the Humboldt, a passenger steamer, during foggy conditions in the Channel. Beyond repair, the boat also didn’t sink, proving itself to be a navigation hazard. The Coast Guard then towed it out to Skunk Point, where it was blown up, with parts of the vessel eventually washing ashore.

Past this first remnant of the wreck, the route leads over a small rise before arriving at the open expanse of wind driven sand at Skunk Point. Out along the sandy point, one can find the 80-foot long section of timbers bound with iron pins that formed the vessel’s keelson, now looking like a long spine submerged in the sand. The wreck is one of close to 150 that are found in the National Park and adjoining National Marine Sanctuary.

The open, sandy section of Skunk Point is closed to hiking from March 1st through September 15th to protect the threatened snowy plover. Skunk Point is named for the island spotted skunk, which is found only on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to see some of what makes Santa Rosa Island a unique destination.

This article originally appeared in section A of the November 16th, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. Next week’s article will be on Lobo Canyon.

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